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SAT's English Focus Worries Students

Nonnative Speakers Fear Disadvantage

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page B04

Lily Cao took the old SAT in January and scored 1520 out of 1600, a worthy complement to her nearly 4.0 grade-point average at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.

She will take the new SAT tomorrow. She expects to tank.

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Lily, 16, and many other foreign-born students around Washington fear trouble with the revised college-entrance exam, which requires them to write an essay in their adoptive tongue in 25 minutes.

The first substantial reworking of the SAT since 1994 has added a section to the test, which will now produce separate scores in verbal ability, math and writing. The language component is longer and more open-ended than before, calling for students to compose paragraphs longhand, to find errors in grammar and punctuation, and to improve a series of sentences and paragraphs.

In high schools with large populations of nonnative English speakers, students and teachers are approaching the debut of the test with apprehension.

"I'm expecting my grade to go down at least 200 points," said Lily, of Cabin John, a native of China who learned English at 7. "The problem is, the colleges don't want to see your SAT scores go down the second time. I know my scores are going to go down on this one."

The College Board, publisher of the SAT, revised the exam partly to give colleges a better sense of how applicants express themselves and a window into how they think, said Amy Schmidt, executive director of higher education research at the New York company.

But some say the expanded test will amplify a scoring disparity that has long vexed many foreign-born students who take the SAT. A straight-A student who has not yet mastered English might have expected a 100-point gap between verbal and math scores on the old SAT. Lily, for example, scored a perfect 800 in math and 720 in verbal on the old test. The new test will have a third score on the same 200-to-800 scale, a potential disadvantage for students weak in English.

The College Board is urging colleges not to weigh the new section too heavily in their admission decisions in the first year, Schmidt said. Some colleges are telling applicants they will no longer accept scores on the old SAT, however, raising the stakes for this year's juniors.

The essay portion of the new test will be graded holistically, Schmidt said, meaning that students who commit minor errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation aren't to be penalized. But an essay with serious errors throughout inevitably will be marked down, she said, because the mistakes will erode the student's message.

"If it interferes with the meaning and it interferes with your ability to communicate your ideas effectively in a written context, then it's going to interfere with your score," she said.

Research by the College Board suggests that the gap in scores between native and nonnative English speakers actually will be somewhat smaller on the new writing section than on the old verbal section. The verbal section has been renamed critical reading and is designed to assess reading comprehension and sentence completion.

"Some do fine," said Joe Hock, college career coordinator at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, where 15 percent of students study English for Speakers of Other Languages. "But some, their math scores are much higher. It's always an issue, depending on how long you've been in the school system learning English."

Schools with large immigrant populations have worked to prepare all of their students for the new test. Long Reach High School in Columbia, where 7 percent of students have limited English proficiency, offers four sections of SAT preparation during school, after school and at night, guidance director Diane Pelash said.

Seneca Valley High in Germantown, where 11 percent of students are nonnative English speakers, has teachers using sample SAT essay prompts to help students learn the format.

"The teachers are concerned about it, and the students are talking about it," said Khadija Barkley, student support specialist for Seneca Valley.

"Is it going to be more difficult? Of course it is."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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